Relationships between diurnal adrenocortical activity, children’s attachment security and mothers’ attachment representations

Lisa Roque, Manuela Veríssimo, Tania F. Oliveira, Marília Fernandes, Ana Rebelo, Rui F. Oliveira


This study investigated the relationship between diurnal adrenocortical activity and attachment quality (children’s secure base behaviours and mothers’ attachment representations). Forty-two children ranging in age from 18 to 26 months of age and their mothers participated in this study. Children and mothers’ saliva samples were collected on two consecutive days (Saturday and Sunday), three times per day: awakening; 20m after awakening; bedtime. No significant relationships were found involving mothers’ attachment representations. However, significant negative correlations between children and mothers’ bedtime cortisol levels and children’s attachment security were found.


Diurnal cortisol, Attachment, Secure base, Mothers' representations


Adam, E. K., & Gunnar, M. R. (2001). Relationship functioning and home and work demands predict individual differences in diurnal cortisol patterns in women. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 26 (2), 189-208.

Adam, E. K. (2004). Design and Analytic Methods for Understanding Cortisol Activity in Human Populations. Workshop for ISPA – Instituto Universitário, Lisbon, Portugal.

Ainsworth, M. D. S, Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, N.J: Erlbaum.

Bartels, M., de Geus, E. J. Kirschbaum, C., Sluyter, F., & Boomsma, D.I., (2003). Heritability of daytime cortisol levels in children. Behavior Genetics, 33 (4), 421-433.

Bost, K. (2006). Attachment: AQS Methodology. Workshop presented at the Instituto Superior de Psicologia Aplicada, Lisbon, Portugal.

Brummett, B. H., Babyak, M. A., Siegler, I. C., Vitaliano, P. P., Ballard, E. L., Gwyther, L. P., & Williams, R. B. (2006). Associations Among Perceptions of Social Support, Negative Affect, and Quality of Sleep in Caregivers and Noncaregivers. Health Psychology, 25 (2), 220-225.

Carmichael, C. L., & Reis, H. T. (2005). Attachment, Sleep Quality, and Depressed Affect. Health Psychology, 25 (4), 526-531.

Coppola, G., Vaughn, B. E., Cassibba, R., & Costantini, A. (2006). The attachment script representation procedure in an Italian sample: Associations with Adult Attachment Interview scales and maternal sensitivity. Attachment and Human Development, 8, 209-219.

de Kloet, E. R. (1991). Brain corticosteroid receptor balance and homeostatic control. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 12 (2), 95-164.

Edwards, S., Clown, A., Evans, P., & Hucklebridge, F. (2001). Exploration of the awakening cortisol response in relation to diurnal cortisol secretory activity. Life Science., 68, 2093-2103.

Eek, F., Karlson, B., Garde, A. H., Hansen, A. M., & Ørbæk, P. (2012). Cortisol, sleep and recovery - Some gender differences but no straight associations. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 37 (1), 56-64.

El-Sheikh, M., Buckhalt, J. A., Keller, P. S., & Granger, D. A. (2008). Children's Objective and Subjective Sleep Disruptions: Links With Afternoon Cortisol Levels. Health Psychology, 27 (1), 26-33.

Essex, M. J., Klein, M. H., Cho, E., & Kalin, H. H. (2002). Maternal stress beginning in infancy may sensitize children to later stress exposure: effects on cortisol and behaviour. Biological Psychiatry, 52, 776-784.

George, C., Kaplan, N., & Main, M. (1984). Adult Attachment Interview protocol. (Unpublished manuscript), University of California at Berkeley.

Gunnar, M. (1992). Reactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical system to stressors in normal infants and children. Pediatrics, 90, 491-497.

Gunnar, M., Brodersen, L., Nachmias, M., Buss, K., & Rigatuso, R. (1996). Stress reactivity and attachment security. Developmental Psychobiology, 29, 10-36.

Gunnar, M, & Donzella, B. (2002). Social regulation of the cortisol levels in early human development. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 27, 199-220.

Hatzinger, M., Brand, S., Perren, S., Stadelmann, S., von Wyl, A., von Klitzing, K., & Holsboer-Trachsler, E. (2008). Electroencephalographic sleep profiles and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical (HPA) - activity in kindergarten children: Early indication of poor sleep quality associated with increased cortisol secretion. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 42 (7), 532-543.

Knutsson, U., Dahlgreen, J., Marcus, C., Rosberg, S., Bronnegard, M., Stierna, P., & Albertsson-Wikland, K. (1997). Circadian Cortisol Rhytms in Healthy Boys and Girls: Relationship with Age, Growth, Body Composition, and Pubertal Development. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, Vol.82, Nº2, 536-540.

Kupper, N., de Geus, E. J., van den Berg, M.m Kirschbaum, C., Boomsma, D. I., & Willemsen, G. (2005). Familial influences on basal salivary cortisol in an adult population. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 30, 857-868.

Larson, M., Gunnar, M., & Hertsgaard, L. (1991). The effects of morning naps, car trips, and maternal separation on adrenocortical activity in human infants. Child Development, 62, 362-372.

Larson, M., White B., Cochran, A., Donzella, B., & Gunnar, M. (1998). Dampening of the cortisol response to handling at 3-months in human infants and its relation to sleep, circadian cortisol activity, and biobehavioral distress. Developmental Psychobiology, 33, 327-337.

Luecken, L. (2000). Parental caring and loss during childhood and adult cortisol responses to stress. Psychological Bulletin, 15, 841-851.

Meinlschmidt, G., & Heim, C. (2005). Decreased cortisol awakening response after early loss experience. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 30, 568-576.

Nachmias, M., Gunnar, M., Mangelsdorf, S., Parritz, R. H., & Buss, K. (1996). Behavioral inhibition and stress reactivity: the moderating role of attachment security. Child Development, 67, 508-522.

Nelson, R. J. (2005). An Introduction to Behavioral Endocrinology, third edition. Sinauer Associates, Inc. Publishers, Sunderland, Massachusetts.

Posada, G., Goa, Y., Wu, F., Posada, R., Tascon, M., Schoelmerich, A., Sagi, A., Kondo-Ikemura, K., Haaland, W., & Synnevaag, B. (1995). The secure-base phenomenon across cultures: Children’s behaviour, mother’s preferences and experts concepts. In Waters, Vaughn, Posada, & Kondon-Ikemura (Eds.), Caregiving, cultural, and cognitive perspectives on secure-base behavior and working models: New growing points of attachment theory and research, Monographs of the Society for Research in the Child Development, 60 (2-3), 27-47.

Pruessner, J., Wolf, O., Hellhammer, D., Buske-Kirschbaum, A., von Auer, K., Jobst, S., Kaspers, F., & Kirschbaum, A. (1997). Free cortisol levels after awakening: a reliable biological marker for the assessment of adrenocortical activity. Life Science, 61, 2539-2549.

Quirin, M., Pruessner, J. C., & Kuhl, J. (2008). HPA system regulation and adult attachment anxiety: Individual differences in reactive and awakening cortisol. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 33 (5), 581-590.

Roque, L., Veríssimo, M., Oliveira, T. F., &, Oliveira, R. F. (2012). Attachment security and HPA axis reactivity to positive and challenging emotional situations in child-mother dyads in naturalistic settings. Developmental Psychobiology, 54, 401-411.

Saxbe, D. E., Repetti, R. L., & Nishina, A. (2008). Marital satisfaction, recovery from work, and diurnal cortisol among men and women. Health Psychology, 27 (1), 15-25.

Scher, A. (2005). Infant sleep at 10 months of age as a window to cognitive development. Early Human Development, 81 (3), 289-292.

Spangler, G. (1991). The emergence of adrenocortical circadian function in newborns and infants and its relationships to sleep, feeding and maternal arenocortical activity. Early Human Development, 27, 197-208.

Spangler, G., & Grossman, K. E. (1993). Biobehavioral organization in securely and insecurely attached infants. Child Development, 64, 1439-1450.

Spangler, G., & Schieche, M. (1998). Emotional and adrenocortical responses of infants to the strange situation: the differential function of emotional expression. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 22, 681-706.

Stansbury, K., & Gunnar, M. R. (1994). Adrenocortical activity and emotion regulation. In N. Fox (Eds.), The development of emotion regulation: biological and behavioral considerations (pp. 53-69). Monographs of the Society for Research on Child Development, 59 (Serial Nº 240).

Stenius, F., Theorell, T., Lilja, G., Scheynius, A., Alm, J., & Lindblad, F. (2008). Comparisons between salivary cortisol levels in six months-olds and their parents. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 33, 352-359.

Steptoe, A., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Semmler, C., Plomin, R., & Wardle, J. (2009). Heritability of daytime cortisol levels and cortisol reactivity in children. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34 (2), 273-280.

Teti, D. M., Kim, B. R., Mayer, G., & Countermine, M. (2010). Maternal Emotional Availability at Bedtime Predicts Infant Sleep Quality. Journal of Family Psychology, 24 (3), 307-315.

van IJzendoorn, M. H., Vereijken, C. M., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., & Riksen-Walraven, J. M. (2004). Assessing attachment security with the attachment Q-sort: Meta-analytic evidence for the validity of the observer AQS. Child Development, 75, 1188-1213.

Vaughn, B. E., Coppola, G., Veríssimo, M., Monteiro, L., Santos, A. J., & Posada, G., et al. (2007). The quality of maternal secure base scripts predicts children’s secure base behavior at home in three socio-cultural groups. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 31, 65-76.

Vaughn, B. E., Veríssimo, M., Coppola, G., Bost, K. K., Shin, N., McBride, B., Krzysik, L., & Korth, B. (2006). Maternal attachment script representations: Longitudinal stability and associations with stylistic features of maternal narratives. Attachment and Human Development, 8, 199-208.

Vaughn, B., El-Sheikh, M. Shin, N., Elmore-Staton, L., Kryzsik, L. & Monteiro, L. (2011). Attachment representations, sleep quality and adaptive functioning in preschool age children. Attachment & Human Development, 13 (6), 525-540.

Veríssimo, M., Monteiro, L, Vaughn, B. E., Santos, A. J., & Waters, H. (2005). Coordenação entre o modelo interno dinâmico da mãe e o comportamento de base segura dos seus filhos. Análise Psicológica, 23 (2), 7 – 17.

Veríssimo, M., Monteiro, L., & Santos, A. J. (2006). Para além da mãe: vinculação na tríade mãe-pai-criança. In J.C. Coelho Rosa & S. Sousa (Eds.), Caderno do bebé (pp. 73-85). Fim de Século.

Warren, S. L., Gunnar, M. R., Kagan, J., Anders, T. F., Simmens, S. J., Rones, M., Wease, S., Aron, E., Dahl, R. E., & Sroufe, L. A. (2003). Maternal panic disorder: infant temperament, neurophysiology and parenting behaviors. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescence Psychiatry, 42, 814-825.

Watamura, S. E., Donzella, B., Alwin, J., & Gunnar, M. R. (2003). Morning-to-afternoon increases in cortisol concentrations for infants and toddlers at child care: age differences and behavioral correlates. Child Development, 74, 1006-1020.

Waters, E., & Deane, K. (1985). Defining and assessing individual differences in attachment relationships: Q-methodology and the organization of behavior in infancy and early childhood. In I. Bretherton & E. Waters (Eds.), Growing points of attachment theory and research, Monographs of the Society for Research in the Child Development, 50 (1-2), 41-65.

Waters, H. S., & Rodrigues-Doolabh, L. M. (2004). Manual for decoding secure base narratives. (Unpublished manuscript), State University of New York at Stony Brook.

White, B., Gunnar, M., Larson, M., Donzella, B., & Barr, R. (2000). Behavioral and physiological responsivity, sleep and patterns of daily cortisol in infants with and without colic. Child Development, 71, 862-877.



  • There are currently no refbacks.

Nº ERC: 107494 | ISSN (in print): 0870-8231 | ISSN (online): 1646-6020 | Copyright © ISPA - CRL, 2012 | Rua Jardim do Tabaco, 34, 1149-041 Lisboa | NIF: 501313672 | The portal and metadata are licensed under the license Creative Commons CC BY-NC